Image: 3D Systems/ChefJet
Eating a piece of fruit that was printed by a machine is cool and novel and The Future, but it’s insanely impractical compared to simply eating a piece of fruit grown on a tree by Mother Nature. That’s why one of the most interesting aspects of the 3D-printed food trend isn’t nutrition, but the shape and aesthetics of the manufactured meal.
Autumn truffle. Image: TNO
Over in Cambridge, England, the design studio Dovetailed recently unveiled 3D-printed “fresh fruit on demand,” and what’s most compelling is what the food looks like. Through ‘spherification,’ liquid drops with different flavors are formed into custom shapes like strawberry-flavored raspberries. The technology is aimed at chefs or foodies interested in “creative dining experiences.”
“Nearly all of the 3D printed food examples out there are examples of food that has been printed into a certain interesting shape,” Kjeld van Bommel, a 3D-printed food expert from The Netherlands told me.
He and his team at TNO, a 3D-printed food innovation lab in the Netherlands, have done a ton of work in this area—creating truffles with plaice and fois gras, to Faberge eggs and boxy spice bites.
Spice bytes. Image: TNO
The next focus is on creating textures along with the shapes.
Fancy 3D-printed egg. Image: TNO
While the process of oozing layered 3D-printed goo may not sound appetizing, it is slowly becoming more attractive as food printers enter the commercial market: Choc Edge sells what it says is the first 3D chocolate printer for roughly $4,865.
Image: 3D Systems/ChefJet
The Foodini, made by Natural Machines, is supposed to enter the market this year, as is Cubify, ChefJet’s 3D sugar printers, which 3D print structural sugar, anything from sugared skulls to Valentine’s Day roses. The printers are not cheap, ranging up to $10,000, but many are geared towards culinary professionals.
Techno sugar cubes. Image: 3D Systems/ChefJet
Beyond adding a novel splash of creativity to the consumption experience, the ability to manipulate the natural shape of certain foods could prove to be beneficial. Van Bommel believes the main benefit of printing foods is to include alternative ingredients like algae protein, beet leaves, even insects.
This has been discussed as a path toward a sustainable and eco-friendly food future, but most people think eating bugs is nasty. The hope is that 3D printing could change that perception. “I think that by transforming the insects into attractive printed foods more people will be willing to eat them, which will contribute to a lowering of the carbon footprint of food, which is something people do care about,” van Bommel said.
The technology is also being used to deliver personalized meals, like the rise of “Smoothfood” over in Germany. Co-founded by BioZoon, Smoothfood was developed as a solution for people, usually elderly people, who have trouble swallowing. The food is made from natural ingredients and is processed into a puree through the 48-nozzle printer, then constructed into shapes that’s a much more appealing dining experience than slurping up a blend of liquid calories.
They’ve got plates that combine veggies, meat, and carbs, from cauliflower to chicken and pasta. Custom plates can also add specific vitamins, portion size, and personalized nutritional needs and food texture for each patient. Consumers can order-up their personal food spread through a QR code stamped on plates. The machine scans the code and makes the specific meal, which is delivered to nursing homes.
The challenge is reconstructing food that looks appetizing, but the company says the taste is still authentic. “The food tastes like normal food,” said Sandra Forstner, the project manager at BioZoon. “It is made from fresh ingredients, so the taste doesn’t change.”